Engaging Africa on its own terms

By Jendayi Frazer

By working with Africans, Washington can fight Chinese influence, boost the global economy, and shore up the liberal order. But only if it makes the continent a priority.

A U.N. Peacekeeper in Mogadishu, Somalia on May 1, 2017. (Inga Kjer/Getty Images)

How can U.S. leadership in Africa better advance both African and U.S. interests? Elevating the importance and intensity of the relationship would benefit both sides. The United States needs Africa’s help to shore up the global liberal order in multilateral institutions, where it is being contested by China. The continent’s renewable resources, strategic minerals, and energy reserves are central to the struggle to address climate change and make the transition to a green economy. Promoting peace and stability in Africa would safeguard U.S. security and let Washington push back against malign actors like Beijing and Moscow. And helping Africa’s young and growing population tap its vast economic potential could be instrumental in the fight against global poverty; the failure to do so, on the other hand, could contribute to radicalization, instability, and extremism. 

Africa would also benefit from a closer relationship with the United States. Of its many priorities, boosting the continent’s economies may be the most important. Africa needs U.S. leadership to reform the global financial system so that it can better help the region recover from COVID-19 and respond to global inflation – including the soaring costs of food and energy caused by the war in Ukraine – as well as to climate challenges and debt distress. Facilitating U.S. private investment and expanding trade could have a transformative effect not just on Africa’s development but also on democracy and the rule of law there.  

Too often in the past, U.S. policymakers have treated Africa primarily as a humanitarian issue, ranking it lower than American interests everywhere else. In recent years, China and Russia have taken advantage of this neglect to undermine U.S. influence in Africa. The inconsistent on-again, off-again way different U.S. presidential administrations have engaged in Africa has also undermined Washington’s credibility as a reliable partner. Reversing these trends will require more than rhetoric. The United States must find a more strategic and sustained way to engage with Africa – one that respects African voices and agency and promotes mutual interests.  

Fortunately, there is a precedent. In the early 2000s, the AIDS crisis had grown so severe that it threatened to collapse both the social fabric and the economies of many African countries. President George W. Bush rose to the challenge by mobilizing a global response to raise awareness and resources. In 2002, he took the lead in the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Then, in his 2003 State of the Union address, he announced the creation of the unprecedented President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). In the years that followed, PEPFAR solidified American leadership and shifted global expectations and capabilities. It saved more than 25 million lives, provided treatment to over 20 million people, and prevented millions of new HIV infections.  In 2014, PEPFAR’s investment in health infrastructure also proved essential to ending the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and it was crucial to the region’s response to COVID in 2020.   

PEPFAR worked because of President Bush’s leadership, which focused and energized his administration, built congressional support for historic levels of funding, and inspired the leadership and cooperation of heads of state and the leaders of multinational organizations in Africa and around the world. By actively and consistently engaging African leaders on their priorities and vision, President Bush was able to craft a holistic and strategic U.S. Africa policy. Washington needs to make a similar effort today.  

More seats at the table

The global institutions and norms that have prevailed over the last eight decades are currently facing the most serious challenge in their history. Most of those institutions, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, were created immediately following World War II, a time when most African countries were still European colonies and therefore got little say in the process. Today, by contrast, African states constitute 54 of the U.N.’s 193 members, or 28% of the total. The continent, which holds three nonpermanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, is gaining influence, especially as the five permanent members of the council struggle to reach consensus on global issues.  

But Africa’s 1.5 billion people want a greater say in U.N. decision-making at the Security Council, which they could gain by securing two permanent and five nonpermanent seats on the body. African leaders argue that such representation is justified by the number of African member-states and the fact that the majority of U.N. resolutions and the majority of U.N. peacekeeping operations focus on the continent. 

Africa’s 1.5 billion people want a greater say in the U.N. Security Council and other global bodies.

Repeated global economic crises that have originated outside Africa, meanwhile, have soured many Africans on the capacity of the international financial system to address their concerns. The continent also remains grossly underrepresented at many international financial organizations. Africa has the most members of and the most programs at the IMF, yet it controls only 6.5% of its voting shares. Africa is also the biggest constituent of the World Bank with the most concessional loans, yet it controls only 11% of the bank’s voting shares. Africans understandably want more say in such organizations, and U.S. leadership will be essential to finding ways to deliver it while preserving the liberal democratic order.  

For all their frustrations, the vast majority of African countries still accept the preeminence of the U.N. and the international financial institutions. But China is working hard to change that, capitalizing on growing discontent with these bodies to position itself as the leader of the Global South in a multipolar world. China is also making numerous efforts to create an alternative international system, as is shown by its support for the enlargement of the BRICS group, the creation of the New Development Bank, and its calls to abandon the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. China is investing heavily in African infrastructure and telecommunications through opaque loans that often use the region’s natural resources as collateral. China is now Africa’s largest bilateral creditor, with $170 billion in loan commitments signed between 2000 and 2021. In return for its money, Beijing encourages African states to support its efforts to place Chinese candidates in leadership positions at U.N. agencies, to back China on sensitive geopolitical issues such as Taiwan and China’s claims in the South and East China Seas, and to aid China’s attempts to set new standards and rules governing technology and cybersecurity. Russia today may wield far less economic and diplomatic clout, but it is also very active in Africa, where it seeks to normalize authoritarianism and undercut democracy by propping up military rulers and using disinformation campaigns to discredit the United States and the West. 

Washington can still counter such actions, but only if it engages decisively in Africa. In order to push back against China’s efforts to create a parallel international system, the United States should support reforms to existing institutions that grant more agency to formerly colonized African countries, and it should deal with those countries’ other concerns. Africans will respond best to U.S. diplomacy if it is perceived as an attempt to address their interests rather than an instrumental attempt to simply counter China’s influence. Given their big populations, economies, and outsize influence on the continent, the United States should focus its engagement on Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, which together represent 27% of Africa’s population and 47% of its GDP. 

A young demonstrator shows support for Russia's presence in the Central African Republic. Bangui, March 22, 2023. (Barbara DeBout/Getty Images)

Leading in green

Africa is key to the world’s transition to a more sustainable green growth model. Not only does the region have the world’s lowest carbon emissions, but it also has vast solar, wind, and hydro energy sources that can be tapped for renewable energy generation. The forests of the Congo Basin in central Africa are the world’s largest tropical carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than the Amazon and Southeast Asia combined. Africa also possesses 30% of the world’s discovered supply of the strategic minerals that are critical to building key technologies like semiconductors and aerospace and defense instruments. Africa’s abundance of metals and minerals such as cobalt, copper, manganese, nickel, platinum, and lithium are essential to making batteries for electric vehicles and wind turbines, and thus hold the key to clean energy production and the decarbonization of other industries. And Washington’s tensions with Beijing and Moscow have made securing access to these minerals ever more important.   

Unfortunately, the United States is already late to the party. Consider the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country is home to 70% of the world’s cobalt reserves, but 15 of its 19 cobalt mines are already owned by Chinese companies, and about 97% of its cobalt is exported to China. To help it dominate the supply chain for Africa’s strategic minerals, China has heavily invested in the region’s renewable infrastructure. And low-cost Chinese solar panels are powering Africa’s rural areas.  

The good news is that many African countries, such as Angola, the Congo, and Zambia, want to diversify their sources of foreign investment and process their minerals in-country – efforts the United States can and should support through creative financing and by creating incentives to attract the U.S. private sector to compete there. 

U.S. support for the green transition must also take into consideration Africa’s other needs. Of the continent’s 1.4 billion people, approximately 600 million still lack access to electricity, and Africa remains the least industrialized region on the planet. Many of its citizens need energy now, whether it comes from renewable sources or fossil fuels. Yet in its push for the transition to clean energy, the West has not taken Africa’s energy needs sufficiently into account. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (commonly known as COP26) in Glasgow, the United States, along with 12 EU countries, the United Kingdom, the European Investment Bank, and the French and Dutch development agencies, pledged to stop direct public financing of fossil fuel projects everywhere by the end of 2022. This pledge was abandoned when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, however; suddenly, finding access to alternative sources of oil and gas became imperative to the West. Many Africans read these moves as a clear indication that the United States and its rich allies are prepared to ignore Africa’s energy and development needs until and unless the West develops a narrow, self-interested reason to reverse policy 

More work remains if Washington is going to convince Africans it has their best interests at heart.

At COP28 last year in Dubai, the participants agreed to a “just, orderly and equitable” transition away from fossil fuels – a modification that reflected Africa’s growing influence. But far more work remains to be done if Washington is going to convince Africans it has their best interests at heart. Here again, the United States has no time to lose. In 2021, Africa’s known gas reserves totaled 626 trillion cubic meters, representing 7% of proven global natural gas reserves. And recent discoveries and projects underway in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Mozambique, Senegal, Tanzania, and Uganda are expected to increase Africa’s annual gas production from 257 billion cubic meters in 2021 to 520 billion cubic meters by 2050. 

In 2019, Europe absorbed 60% of Africa’s gas exports. The United States has a clear interest in helping its NATO allies find secure energy supplies and reduce their dependence on Russian sources, so it should take the lead in forging a strategic supplier relationship between Africa and Europe. Doing so will involve mobilizing capital investment in production, pipelines, and liquid natural gas port terminals to connect African sources to European markets. Over time, Washington can also help Africa phase out its use of fossil fuels – a role the United States is well positioned to play given its strategic advantage in innovating game-changing technological solutions. 

Keeping the peace

As the U.S. focus on Africa has declined over the last seven years and China and Russia have increased their meddling, Africa’s stability and security have declined significantly. The continent is suffering civil conflicts in the Central African Republic, the Congo, Ethiopia, Libya, and Sudan. Africa experienced seven coups between August 2020 and November 2023. And terrorism is increasing; according to a report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2023, there were “approximately 25 active militant Islamist groups operating in Africa, up from just 5 in 2010 – an increase of 400%.” These groups include two al-Qaida affiliates and eight Islamic State affiliates.  

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and its Western allies have been the dominant external players in Africa’s peace, security, and conflict-resolution efforts. For example, the United States worked closely with African mediators; the African Union; subregional organizations, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD); and neighboring states to resolve conflicts in Burundi, the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. Since its founding in 2008, the U.S. military’s Africa Command has actively engaged in helping contain extremist groups in the region. The United States finances and equips U.N. and AU peacekeeping operations and provides training and equipment. After 9/11, it helped African countries improve their counterterrorism capabilities and coordination. It also sends special forces to train local troops and operate drone bases to help defeat jihadists in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.  

Despite all that work, in recent years the landscape in Africa has become far more complex and diplomatically challenging for Washington. In the past, the United States and its European allies could isolate regimes that had taken power by force, heavily influence conflict-resolution efforts, and apply great pressure on governments that had strayed from democratic norms.  

These days, however, a number of other outside powers have made that work much more difficult. Russia is actively backing juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, while using mercenaries from the Wagner Group to prop up governments in conflicts like that in the Central African Republic. Russia has mounted disinformation campaigns in 17 African countries and interfered in the elections of in 15, fueling conflict and contributing to the erosion of democracy and stability across the continent. The United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have also become heavily involved, providing training, materiel, and diplomatic support to factions in the conflicts in the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are particularly active in the Horn of Africa, providing financing, arms, and diplomatic cover in exchange for access to gold, ports, and fighters for the civil war against the Houthis in Yemen.  

Despite all this, the United States still retains significant diplomatic capacity and leverage throughout Africa – if it decides to lead. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council and by far the largest contributor to the U.N.’s peacekeeping budget, Washington has great influence over the organization’s peacekeeping operations, five of which are currently located in Africa: in the Central African Republic, the Congo, South Sudan, Western Sahara, and Abyei (a contested region on the border of Sudan and South Sudan). It should use this influence to ensure that U.N. and African-led peace operations have the appropriate mandates, funding, training, and equipment to protect civilians, reduce tensions, and maintain peace after settlements are reached. To be more effective at peace negotiations, Washington should partner with African mediators, the AU, and Africa’s main sub-regional organizations: ECOWAS, IGAD, the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). African countries, after all, have deep local and institutional knowledge and expertise in conflict mediation. They also contribute over 40% of all troops to the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations, giving them extra skin in the game. Ghana, Rwanda, and Senegal in particular are important partners that, over the decades, have consistently contributed the largest contingents and most disciplined troops to U.N. operations.

President and Mrs. Bush visit Windhoek Central Hospital in Windhoek, Namibia on April 5, 2017. (Paul Morse / Bush Center)

Growing fast

Demographic trends are another important reason for the United States to increase its engagement in the region. Africa is the youngest, fastest-growing, and fastest-urbanizing region in the world. By 2035, Africa will have the planet’s largest workforce, with a projected 1.1 billion working-age people; globally, one in every four workers will live on the continent. By the turn of the century, Africa is projected to be home to 40% of the world’s population (up from 18% today) and 50% of the planet’s young people (age 15 to 24).  

The economic potential represented by this demographic shift is tremendous. With U.S. government backing, American companies can partner with African entrepreneurs to leapfrog traditional hurdles and help provide mobile banking, renewable energy, health care, and digital services to a fast-growing continent. The Millennium Challenge Account and the Development Finance Corporation should be focused more strategically to finance the building of infrastructure needed to better integrate African markets as part of the African Continental Free Trade Area. (The continent currently has far too few road, rail, and other transport links connecting its many countries.) The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a U.S. law passed in 2000 to deepen U.S. trade ties with sub-Saharan Africa, should also be redesigned as a trade agreement focused on commercial relations that generate more demand and create more jobs in Africa and the United States. Tax incentives and financial guarantees for American companies under AGOA can spur investment in strategic sectors, like the processing of critical minerals, and toward key countries that advance regional integration to create larger markets. Attention should be given to relatively stable market-based economies such as those of Ivory Coast, Kenya, Morocco, and Tanzania (all of which rank among Africa’s top 10 economies).   

Africa’s young people have the potential to become a major consumer market, workforce, and source of innovators who can digitally transform the global economy. Helping them seize that opportunity will require more investment in health care, education and skills training, and rapid job creation. The U.S. government, as well as American foundations and nonprofit organizations, has a long history of working in Africa’s health and education sectors, dating back to President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four Program (a technical assistance program for developing countries announced in 1949) and President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 establishment of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps. This history and experience should be leveraged to strengthen ties and help empower African youth. The U.S. government should also build on investments in Africa made by past administrations, including PEPFAR, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the Neglected Tropical Diseases Program, the Africa Education Initiative, and the Young African Leaders Initiative. Focusing on large population centers is important, but these efforts should also not exclude smaller but relatively stable African democracies like Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Namibia, and the Seychelles. 

Sustained, respectful U.S. engagement in Africa is essential to promoting geopolitical stability, economic prosperity, and democracy – priorities that would benefit African countries and serve the strategic interests of the United States. The United States is the most innovative and technologically advanced country in the world, and because of the long and deep ties among American and African citizens forged by diaspora communities, nongovernmental and faith-based organizations, civil society groups, and the private sector, it is uniquely positioned to partner with Africans to shape a more inclusive global governance system and a more equitable global economy. Such partnerships would gain the United States important allies in its struggle to preserve the liberal international order – an order that has done so much to strengthen America itself and countries around the world.  

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